Giving life: The need for blood donations never lets up

Sheliah Henley prepares Caroline Chipley Johnson's arm to donate platelets at Blood Assurance in Chattanooga.

A lot of people, for example, think that if you've had a recent tattoo, you can't donate. And, yes, you can, if you got your tattoo in Tennessee, and you've waited for it to heal. However, if you got it in Georgia, you've got to wait a year.

It makes Caroline Chipley Johnson feel like a hero to spend 90 minutes watching TV, reading or surfing the Web.

Of course, during that time she's hooked up to a machine that sucks out her blood, removes the platelets that help blood clot, then returns the blood to her body. Johnson, 55, regularly offers up her veins at Blood Assurance.

"I give as often as I can," the Chattanooga resident says. "It really makes me feel good to know that, by sitting back and reading or watching TV for an hour and a half, I'm helping three cancer patients to recover from chemo and radiation treatments," she says.

"Heck, they've even got a computer installed on a swing arm that's attached to the side of the chair. You can go online while you're sitting there. And they give you a Little Debbie and a T-shirt when you're done."

Blood Assurance has a neverending need, especially during the summer and around Christmas.

"The reason is because school is out and people are on vacation and doing other things," says Charlie Callari, vice president of marketing and donor recruitment at Blood Assurance. "Same with the holidays. School's out and people are focusing on Christmas."

Blood on wheels

For Blood Assurance, a key part of its donations come through its “Bloodmobiles,” 13 full-scale blood donation clinics in converted buses, says Charlie Callari, vice president of marketing and donor recruitment at Blood Assurance.“Fifty percent of our blood comes from donations made at our bloodmobiles. If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be here,” he says.About 1,400 businesses and schools are active in holding blood drives annually.“One of the cool programs we have is our ‘Quart of Courage’ program,” he says. “We offer students who donate at least six times during their high school career a red cord/tassel that they wear at graduation.”

By the numbers

In the U.S., here are the blood types from most common to rarest. The percentage is the number of people in the population who have the blood type.* O positive: 37 percent* A positive: 33 percent* B positive: 9 percent* O negative: 8 percent* A negative: 7 percent* AB positive: 3 percent* B negative: 2 percent* AB negative: 1 percentSource: Red Cross

photo Blood donors and technicians watch a news conference on TV at Blood Assurance after the shootings at the Armed Forces Career Center and the Naval Operational Support Center on July 16. In the three days after the shootings, 1,600 people donated blood at Blood Assurance. A typical three-day span sees 1,000 to 1,200 donors.

A surge after the recent shooting deaths of four Marines and a Navy petty officer on July 16 has got them in good shape for now, he says. In the three days after the shootings, 1,600 people donated, he says.

"In our typical three-day period, we might see 1,000 to 1,200 donors," Callari says. "We didn't even have to make a public plea for blood after the recent shootings. People recognized that they wanted to do something to help, and donating blood was a way to do it."

A nonprofit that sells blood to clients, Blood Assurance, founded and based in Chattanooga but with 15 regional locations and 13 traveling Bloodmobiles, is dependent on 540 people donating blood each day, he says, which is what it takes to supply blood to 75 hospitals stretching from cities in Tennessee to Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Virginia. It has locations locally in Hixson, East Brainerd, Cleveland, its main office on Third Street and Fort Oglethorpe and Dalton in Georgia. Donations can be made at any of the locations or in its Bloodmobiles.

The American Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee in Chattanooga partners with Blood Assurance when disasters hit the area.

"We don't take blood donations in Chattanooga because Blood Assurance is here," says Julia Wright, executive director of the local Red Cross. "The Red Cross here supports Blood Assurance. In fact, during 9/11, they had such an influx of donors, we went out and helped them by handing out water. We share the same goals."

Blood Assurance's No. 1 goal is to have a five-day supply on hand at all times.

"If a disaster were to happen right now, we're in good shape, but we would run out," Callari says. "When we get to a one- or two-day supply, that's a little dicey."

The Erlanger Health System is the region's Level 1 Trauma Center and the largest user of Blood Assurance in a 100-mile radius, which adds up to about 90 units of blood a day, says Joy Partin, Erlanger Health System clinical laboratory director. It spends about $3.6 million a year on blood, she says.

To date, Blood Assurance fulfills Erlanger's needs, says Jennifer Homa, Erlanger Health System spokeswoman.

"We've never had to go elsewhere for blood," she says.

Partin says blood must be paid for because "there is a cost associated with receiving blood products because the products must go through collection and processing phases."

"Numerous tests must be performed on the blood to make sure it is safe for transfusion," she says. "Blood Assurance is also under (Federal Drug Administration) regulations, as well as state and other regulatory bodies."

The cost of blood varies depending on who's selling it, Callari says.

"Some of our competitors sell it for well over $200 a pint," he says. "Without giving our exact amount, we're well below that. I can't speak for other blood centers, but our cost does not vary from city to city."

What's needed

While blood of any and all types is needed, certain types are needed more. Specifically, O negative, which is known as "universal donor" because anyone of any blood type can take the blood without problems.

"People with O negative blood ... can help anybody," Callari says. "It's carried in helicopters, and it's the blood used by first responders. You can use O negative before you know what anybody's blood type is."

About 14 percent of the blood they send to hospitals is O negative, he says, noting that it is the type highest in demand.

"That's why we rely on O negative donors," he says. "We do have a good bank of O negative because O negative donors are loyal and typically come several times a year.

"We just sent out an email blast to 4,000 O negative donors and 300 came in - some of whom we haven't seen in years."

Johnson knows her blood type - A positive. She's been donating since she was in college and has never had nausea or other problems.

"My father was a regular donor at Blood Assurance," says Johnson, a program coordinator at the Chattanooga Department of Transportation. "Growing up and watching how he made that simple habit a priority taught me to follow in his footsteps.

"Ironically, my father passed away from complications caused by a blood-related illness. He was unable to fight off infections due to this condition and had to have regular blood transfusions to boost his immunities. During the last couple of years of his life, I donated regularly for his benefit, so that he would be the direct recipient of my healthy blood."

Who can and can't

Volunteers donate most of the country's supply of blood for transfusions, according to With only 10 percent of those who are eligible actually donating, more is always needed. However, not everyone is eligible.

People with communicable diseases, particularly certain kinds of cancer and taking certain medications can't donate blood. Callari says anyone with questions about eligibility should call Blood Assurance and talk to the medical director, who is always on call.

"A lot of people, for example, think that if you've had a recent tattoo, you can't donate. And, yes, you can," he says, "if you got your tattoo in Tennessee, and you've waited for it to heal. However, if you got it in Georgia, you've got to wait a year."

You can't donate if you're younger than 16 and, at that age, you must have parental consent, he says, but if you're 17 and older, you can donate without consent.

"There's no age limit if you're healthy and weigh at least 110 pounds," he says, noting that the current oldest donor at Blood Assurance is 90 years old.

By law, a person can donate every 56 days. As soon as the blood leaves your body, it starts working on replenishing it right away, he says.

"Within a few days your body has already replenished it. Its shelf life is only 42 days," he says.

Like Johnson, Pat Hagan of Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., is also a regular donor at Blood Assurance.

"I'm a proud donor of over 30 gallons, mostly as a platelet donor," says Hagan, 65. "I thought it was a way to give back that was simple to do and only required a little time.

"I started as a whole blood donor and I was picked for platelets because of my big veins. I was donating platelets when the Oklahoma City bombings occurred and when 9/11 happened. I leave feeling proud that I could help some very sick people get better."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfree or 423-757-6396.